Blackfriar: The winners and losers of a rollercoaster business year

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THE fifth year of economic quicksand in Britain has not been kind to many of Yorkshire’s listed companies.

Last year’s return to recession lasted three quarters, with Britain only managing to grow after July.

For all its supposed defensive qualities, Morrisons supermarket has not fared well in this climate. Investors have seen its shares fall around 20 per cent this year, and it has consistently been one of the worst performers in the market share rankings.

Discounters including Aldi and Lidl are taking market share, and its lack of an online presence is a big weakness. With its reputation of value, Morrisons ought to be taking market share from its peers, not shedding it. But analysts worry it is “disenfranchising” core customers. Investors will demand a return to growth next year for the Bradford-based chain.

One of the more recent entrants to YPQuoted, CPP Group, also had an annus horribilis. The York-based ‘life assistance’ firm suffered a bruising £10.5m fine from the Financial Services Authority for mis-selling. But that may be just the tip of the iceberg. CPP’s £33.4m estimate of the cost the scandal is conservative. As the banks have seen with payment protection insurance compensation, it could easily rise if claims management firms jump on board.

Other firms, such as coal miners Hargreaves Services and ATH Resources, have been battered by falling coal prices. Hargreaves is closing its Maltby colliery in South Yorkshire with more than 500 jobs likely to go. ATH is in administration after its lenders sold their debt to a private equity firm, which called in its loans.

On balance, UK Coal, or Coalfield Resources as it is now known, emerges as a winner from 2012. It exits the year with a clear future, after a radical and innovative debt restructuring which hands most of the company to its pensioners. From where it stood last year, that must be regarded as a victory. But some of the notable winners include FTSE100 natural chemicals firm Croda, which is winning as consumers continue to prioritise looking good.

Leeds-based medical software firm Emis is riding high as it embeds itself at the heart of the NHS’s new IT policy – creating jobs in Yorkshire. And another software firm, Sheffield’s WANdisco, is on a meteoric trajectory on the stock market as it helps solve the proliferation of data online.

Housebuilder Persimmon is rewarding investors with a generous dividend programme, while slashing debt. Meanwhile, credit lenders Provident Financial and IPF have also performed well, shrugging off the economic malaise to continue expanding at home and abroad.

Innovation is at the heart of most of these firms, plus strong management teams who refuse to accept the status quo. This diverse group of companies shows that even amid a stagnant economy, growth can be found.

A nasty new scam is doing the rounds and Blackfriar is the latest victim. Make sure you, your friends or family aren’t the next.

Last Friday, the Apple store on Oxford Street phoned my home landline asking to speak to me. The caller said two youths were trying to buy £1,000 worth of goods on my card and had I authorised this? I said no. He said don’t worry, it wouldn’t go through the till and they like to check with big purchases. He said they’d call security and the police. I thought my card must have been cloned so I phoned Lloyds to cancel all my cards. I duly phoned the Lloyds number and went through all the normal bank checks – first letter of my mother’s maiden name, etc. They asked me lots of questions, put me on hold for a long time, etc – all as you’d expect.

They told me the thieves had spent £350 at Louis Vuitton and another £400 at the Apple store. They then said the police had arrested one of the suspects, but the other had got away.

At the end of the call they told me that there would be a criminal investigation and the money would be refunded into my account. They also told me new cards would be sent out and would reach me within five days.

I checked my accounts online on Monday morning. £1,000 had been taken out. I called Lloyds again. They had no record of me cancelling my cards. I was put through to Lloyds’ fraud office who said this is a new scam – fraudsters intercept your phone line. They can only intercept landlines.

Blackfriar has knocked enough banks over the years, but Lloyds deserve praise indeed. They were very sympathetic and have reimbursed all the money.

On Friday I called my mother from my landline. On Monday she was targeted. Lloyds told me these people make a living out of conning people. It’s their day job.

The police have subsequently told me to never divulge anything over a landline. Call your bank from a mobile. If your bank or a shop calls you, get their number, phone them back. Use your mobile.

Blackfriar feels pretty stupid having been conned. However if the experience stops it happening to someone else, it’s worth it.